HOMILY 5TH SUNDAY OF LENT YEAR A 2023 ESSENDON
DARKNESS TO LIGHT – DEATH TO LIFE
Jn 11.1-45 Ez 37,12-14 Rom 8.8-11
Priestly ministry is so diverse, with the sacramental side from Baptisms to Reconciliation to Eucharist to Marriages to Anointing the sick and dying. And there is the pastoral side, of course, with the many dimensions of personal engagement at the various stages of people’s lives. As I reflect on my life as a priest, I can quote from a book I was presented with, after 12 years as parish priest in Manly: “You’ll miss the big house and he surf and the ferry, and a place where you baptize much more than you bury!” I think the ratio was something like 2:1 there, but the ratio is more even here, with the funerals perhaps in front. Then there’s the engagement with schools when there’s time too, as we happily celebrated 100 years of St Therese’s School on Thursday.
Later on, I was up at Arcadia to anoint 2 faithful parishioners who were critically ill. Aileen died soon afterwards aged 101, so one couldn’t ask for much more in life, and John was only 75, and still with us. Then I visited Laurie, at home at 99, who was a bomber pilot in World War II in 1945, and who lived to tell the story. Much later on, he wrote to the mayors of the German cities he bombed, and received a number of replies, expressing gratitude for the apology, but also for helping get rid of the evils of Nazism and Hitler.
Meanwhile, my own father, who had gone to school with Laurie in the 1930’s, died 41 years ago at 59, of motor neurone disease. There’s no telling when our number is up, so to speak, but the reality is that we are not on this planet forever, and our challenge is to make the most of the opportunities we are given, and to accept the fact that life is often not fair.
From a faith perspective, it’s reassuring that we have the person and message of Jesus to guide the way we live our lives here and now, with the hope and promise of eternal life, as that’s the leap of faith we take. Death is so final and irreversible. What is more, life can seem so short, however long we might live. As Brendan Byrne SJ puts it: “Living and believing in Jesus will ensure that physical death is not the end of the story.” Yet the fact remains that dealing with, and accepting the harsh reality of death is very tough stuff.
And now for Lazarus! It’s a name that has gone into general use ever since John’s Gospel has told the story. Australian author Morris West wrote a book named “Lazarus”, following successful heart bypass surgery, and John Howard titled his autobiography “Lazarus Rising”, referring to his defeat as party leader and then his successful comeback to become PM for 11 years.
We often use the name for those who have near death experiences and somehow, sometimes, unexpectedly recover. I remember in my first parish, way back in Croydon 44 years ago, a couple where the wife could give a litany of all of her husband Gerald’s ailments, to the extent she might as well have been his doctor; she even called him Lazarus! He certainly suffered severe illnesses, but was stoic in the face of it all, and always had a smile on his face, as she went through the list. Mortality did catch up with him in the end, as it will for all of us, much as we mightn’t want to think about the fact.
And as it did in the end for Jesus’ friend Lazarus. In January 1977, I remember seeing what was said to be the tomb of Lazarus about 10km out of Jerusalem, but the supervisor, seeking donations of shekels or US dollars, seemed perplexed when I asked whether it was the first or second tomb for Lazarus – more than likely neither, but meanwhile a good money maker!
I quote Claude Mostowik MSC: “The readings carry a message of hope and rebirth. Clearly there are times when death, destruction and dehumanization are so powerful that the path forward is not clear. All we can do is cry out to God and remember that. Jesus loves us and weeps with us outside the tombs, calling us gently to come out. Others among us are invited to be onlookers or spectators at the tomb, but work to make rebirth – resurrection – happen, by taking away the stone and unbinding people. This is our part in the creation of a world of life. In a time of anxiety, as we are experiencing now, let us free each other from fears and doubts about death.” And so, to live as well as we can here and now.
The story of Lazarus is the climax of John’s Gospel in terms of Jesus’ public ministry, the last straw for those wanting to eliminate Jesus from the scene. It’s once again, a very human story, with friendship at the heart of it, a sense of overwhelming grief and loss at the death of one dearly loved. Jesus has left the safer regions to risk his own life for the sake of Lazarus, whom he calls back to life, to be released from the bonds of death, symbolized by the cloth wrapped around him.
Lazarus can be seen to stand for each of us, as Jesus calls us from the symbolic darkness and shelter of the tomb, to be his friends, and to accompany us in Spirit, as we journey on in our own lives, reflecting his light and his love, and, in the context here, supporting each other in times of sadness, loss and grief, in particular.
So, my concluding words are: “Life, be in it!!”
john hannon 26th March 2023